The Foolishness of Moving Illinois’ Tobacco-Use Age to 21

Published June 9, 2016

Despite the current fiscal crisis facing Illinois, state lawmakers want to decrease tax revenues. They don’t plan to do this by lowering taxes, but by increasing the legal purchasing age of tobacco products—including electronic cigarettes—from 18 to 21 years old. Not only would this proposal take away state funding with little impact on public health, it would also make Illinois the third state to take tobacco rights away from its newest generation of young adults, furthering the advancement of the state’s already imposing nanny-state policies.

Advocates of the newly proposed age requirement say the law would help improve public health for young people, but the evidence suggests there is no validity to this claim. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found 58 percent of 12th grade respondents reported using alcohol in 2015, and 35 percent of respondents admitted using marijuana in the same period, despite laws regulating or banning their use. Teens, not surprisingly, found a way to purchase and use the illegal products, so why wouldn’t they do the same thing with tobacco?

In addition to failing to accomplish its stated goals, the proposed legislation would also likely increase the erroneous stigma already associated with electronic cigarette use, by including such products in the provision. If saving the lives of “kids” is the aim, then lawmakers should examine recent evidence on e-cigarette use, which shows e-cigarettes discourage teens from traditional cigarettes and are a safer alternative to tobacco.

It’s also perplexing—to say the least—Illinois lawmakers would choose to enact a tobacco-related age increase considering there still isn’t a state budget in place. The costs associated with this bill—in terms of revenue lost due to taxes and the cost of enforcement—simply cannot be justified in a time when the state is facing a serious economic crisis, as it is now. It seems as if the proposal is just an attempt by some legislators to get something done in time for November and in the easiest fashion: by attacking cigarette smokers, as always.

Although smokers would be those who are burdened most by the proposal, non-smoking taxpayers would also have to take on additional costs to battle the expansion of the tobacco black market, which is sure to occur if the age increase is approved. Cook County has already had to create the Cigarette Tax Reward Program in response to its creation of the current $3 county tax on tobacco products. The program offers monetary awards to persons reporting violations on cigarettes taxes. Reported violations include unstamped and counterfeit packs and even stray cigarettes, which the reporting “tipster” can receive up to $250 for identifying.

CBS Chicago reported in 2014, that of the $4 million in tobacco citations written up each year in Chicago, approximately only 15–20 percent are paid, the remainder are ignored by the offender and passed to collection agencies. 

The fiscal costs associated with the proposed measure have still yet to be completely determined. Lawmakers do not know how much money will need to be added to cities’ and counties’ budgets to fund enforcement measures, and no new revenue source would be directly generated by the plan. At least when Illinois decides to gouge cigarette smokers in localized taxes, the state is acquiring additional money. The proposed savings in Illinois—which are measured in terms of health-care-related savings—can only be speculated on, not verified, and they could take years to produce any positive results, and that’s assuming positive results will occur at all.

It’s time for the state to quit being a nanny to Millennials. The federal government and states already hold young Americans responsible to the rules of the court of law, to contracts, and to massive amounts of student loan debt. Age-of-consent laws are written to grant rights to citizens 18 years old or older, and 18-year-old men are required to sign up for Selective Services, making them eligible for future drafts and wars on faraway continents. But in Illinois, the state doesn’t want citizens under the age of 21 to smoke cigarettes because it’s bad for them?

Illinois lawmakers should spend their time focusing on the areas in desperate need of reform—beginning with a fix to the current budget crisis—instead of depriving young adults of the rights they deserve.